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Congressional inconsistency continues regarding war powers

Congressional inconsistency continues regarding war powers
© Bonnie Cash

This month, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) voted to approve the annual National Defense Authorization Act — more commonly known as the defense spending bill. This legislation authorizes funding for the Department of Defense for budgets that include: military pay increases; buying new ships and airplanes; and the military health care system for the next fiscal year. Tucked away inside the House version of this year's bill is a widely supported amendment that limits funds to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, a stated goal of President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race MORE since the 2016 campaign.

This amendment is quite stunning to observers of Congress's role in foreign relations and national security issues over the past two decades. Even at the height of criticism and sinking voter confidence over the Iraq War in the mid-2000s, Congress was not able to muster the will to limit President Bush from increasing the American troop's presence there. During the Obama administration, our legislators weren't able to reach a consensus on either authorizing or disapproving of the president's strategically futile actions in Libya and Syria, despite massive public opposition and the outright violation of constitutional war-making authorities.  

For those hoping Congress would reassert their authority against the reckless adventurism that seemed to infect both Democratic and Republican administrations, there was a glimmer of hope when a bipartisan effort in 2019 — to curtail America's involvement in the Yemeni civil war — got to President Trump's desk. While it ultimately failed to gain enough votes to override the veto, there was reason to be optimistic about the tide turning against excessive executive power.

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Unfortunately, the vote to limit the withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan showed that this sudden congressional interest in asserting its constitutional powers may be more about limiting the person in the Oval Office than the office itself. Every security issue should be weighed by its own merits against our national security interests. However, it takes considerable cognitive dissonance to believe we should not be involved in Yemen's civil war while supporting our presence in Afghanistan after nearly two decades — or vice versa. 

The amendment itself — offered by Rep. Jason CrowJason CrowGiffords launches national Gun Owners for Safety group to combat the NRA House approves .2T COVID-19 relief bill as White House talks stall Lawmakers grill Pentagon over Trump's Germany drawdown MORE (D-Colo.) and co-sponsored by Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyPressure grows from GOP for Trump to recognize Biden election win Trump: Liz Cheney's election remarks sparked by push to bring US troops home Biden's lead over Trump surpasses 6M votes as more ballots are tallied MORE (R-Wyo.) — exposes Congress's continued inconsistency with the application of war powers. The Crow amendment does not explicitly prohibit the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Still, it requires several very ambiguous conditions to be certified before funds can be released to withdraw troops.  

The conditions laid out certifying that withdrawal: 

will not increase the risk for the expansion of existing or formation of new terrorist safe havens inside Afghanistan [and] will not compromise or otherwise negatively affect the ongoing United States counter terrorism mission against the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and associated forces-are patently absurd considering that a large American troop presence in Afghanistan over 19 years has not been able to achieve these feats. 

Requiring these certifications is a recipe for keeping American troops there in perpetuity. This is political fence-sitting at its finest: neither having the stomach to take the hard vote of supporting or blocking a presidential initiative nor doing the difficult but necessary work of either repealing or reforming the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), under which the military's presence in Afghanistan is authorized. While it is glaringly obvious that our strategy in Afghanistan is not successful by any metric, our legislators refuse to do anything beyond guarding the status quo. 

Unfortunately, there is plenty of modern precedence for this type of legislative dithering. In 2013, President Obama asked Congress for authorization to strike Syria following allegations of chemical weapons use, and a resolution to that effect was introduced in the Senate. Congress took no further action on this, due in part to the unpopularity among the American public to another Middle East war, yet quietly inserted language into that year's defense bill authorizing the Pentagon to start a train and equip program with Syria rebels. The Congressional Intelligence Committees, at the same time, was overseeing a similar covert operation conducted by the CIA.

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Both programs were considerable failures, culminating in reports that rebels equipped by the Pentagon were fighting against those trained by the CIA. Such a fiasco could have been avoided if Congress had taken its war powers seriously instead of avoiding tough votes. 

If Congress is legitimately interested in the American presence in Afghanistan, it should undertake the belated review and repeal of the 2001 AUMF. Lawmakers should also develop a modern and realistic structure to address terrorism that aligns with today's national security interests.

Robert Moore is a public policy advisor for Defense Priorities and previously served as a congressional staffer for nearly 10 years, most recently as a lead staffer for Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeLoeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection Rick Scott tests positive for coronavirus OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee | Forest Service finalizes rule weakening environmental review of its projects | Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight MORE (R-Utah) on the Senate Armed Services Committee.